Could the Iraq War have been prevented?

In the comments to a post on Republican obstructionism, my old colleague Will Roberts proposes the following historical counterfactual: if the American left had been willing to fight harder and dirtier, they could have prevented or arrested the war in Iraq.

He goes on to propose a variety of actions that might have achieved this goal:

A million people showed up in New York — and at least half that number in DC — to commiserate about our powerlessness. We had immense wealth at our disposal. We had fame and access to the media. We had access to positions of economic, infrastructural, and governmental power. And all you can think of is assassinations?

Would it have destroyed the legitimacy of the anti-war movement if ten thousand people had burned down their own houses in protest? If 500 people had shut down I-80 in Pennsylvania for a week? If a thousand people had invaded the White House? If a few Senators had shut down the Senate? If all those anti-war actors had used every single public appearance to speak out against the war? If anti-war folks had joined the military in large numbers in order to disrupt military bases from within?

I have no idea if any of these things would have “worked.” But I think we all felt powerless from the get go, and came to an a priori judgment that there was nothing we could do that wouldn’t a) be futile and b) make things worse by causing more harm to us/the economy/our legitimacy/whatever. But that’s precisely the thinking that I’m both tired of engaging in and convinced does nothing but guarantee political impotence.

Right now, I am tempted and troubled by defeatism: basically, given the structure of American government, the political culture after September 11, and the various incentives and pressures that operate on American politicians, nothing that citizens could have done would have prevented our disastrous, unjust, and illegal “pre-emptive” invasion in Iraq. Each of the actions Will outlines seem likely to have provoked and empowered the hawkish politicians, supplying them opportunities to discredit the anti-war left and gather more support for their policy goals and objectives. I suspect that each of these strategies would have failed. Just shooting from the hip:

  • Arson is illegal, so the first twenty people who burnt down their houses would end up in jail, especially if they still had mortgages. (There’s a guy who demolished his house after it was foreclosed… same problem.)
  • The 500 folks who shut down I-80 would be met by 150 SWAT and end up in jail while moderates distanced themselves from the movement.
  • Post 9/11, I’m not sure how the left would have gotten 1000 people into the White House or what they’d hope to accomplish there…. It’s not like the war was actually being run from the West Wing, this is what the Pentagon is for. Plus, in the midst of their planning they’d be infiltrated by FBI/Homeland Security who would “discover” (or actually discover, given Will’s other recommendations) that the activists were planning violence and arrest them. This is basically what happened to the much less radical NYC Republican convention protesters.
  • It’d have been interesting if a few Senators shut down the Senate the way that the Republicans have begun doing, but this isn’t citizen engagement and actual Senators have shown themselves to always be more committed to re-election or retirement than their constituents’ causes.
  • Actors with “anti-American” opinions? A time-tested, bad strategy, which has always proven counter-productive.
  • Join the military? Now your body belongs to the Army and they can separate the activists and pack them off to the front lines with hooah patriots.

This list is better than an abstract call for concrete action insofar as it’s not a performative contradiction, but I don’t think Will offers any suggestions that seems likely to have succeeded, that couldn’t have been co-opted, and that wouldn’t, for instance, have won the 2008 election for McCain/Palin or justified major crackdowns that would have made things worse before they got disastrous.

What’s more, leftist violence in general would be no more successful that the rightist violence of the radical fringe among the Tea Party protesters. This is basically why Kantian/Rawlsian public reason is so seductive: even if you have radical goals and are willing to consider extreme methods, political liberalism still presents itself as the best strategy for accomplishing anything worthwhile.

However, I don’t really want to believe that citizens are as powerless as this, though wanting doesn’t make it true. So I ask: what could we have done to prevent or end the war? Some of this depends on how we describe this “we”: President Bush could have prevented the war, for instance, by the simple expedient of not launching it. The Republicans could have prevented the war by refusing to support it. Saddam Hussein could have prevented the war by handing himself over to a war crimes tribunal. But given that those actors were set in their course, what could the antiwar left have done?

I’m not talking about what the American antiwar movement actually did: protesting ineffectually while our politicians played patriots, supported the war, and waited five years to elect Barack Obama in the hopes that he’ll manage to withdraw American troops? (I say “hope” because even now it’s not clear if the conflict over election results will lead to violence and a longer duration of “peacekeeping.” But this waiting until we get the presidency back and he’s finished mopping up his predecessor’s mess certainly can’t count as “prevention.”) What could we–no–what should we have done differently?

9 thoughts on “Could the Iraq War have been prevented?”

  1. I have a question for you. Insofar as Iraq was a mess partly of our own creation and encouragement, a leftover from the days of proxy-war chess games and realpolitik, do we at least bear some moral responsibility for the government that it had?

    And if we did not, why would we ever bear any moral responsibility for any consequences of national policy?

    And if we did, what was the best approach for getting rid of the guy, for cleaning up after ourselves? Longer sanctions? More suffering and economic hardship for something they were not responsible for?

    Lastly, there is no such thing as anti-war. Anti-war is irrational, not when every nation has within its power to wage war, and humans in general seem eager enough to engage in it at least once a generation. No, there is only opposition to particular wars, or to particular approaches or strategies. The question is, why would any moral person oppose a war to rid the world of a monster of our own creation?

    1. That's a bunch of questions:

      do we at least bear some moral responsibility for the government that it had?

      Yes. We're to blame.

      And if we did, what was the best approach for getting rid of the guy, for cleaning up after ourselves? […] The question is, why would any moral person oppose a war to rid the world of a monster of our own creation?

      Just because you're to blame for something doesn't mean you have a right to "clean it up," especially if that causes 151,000 violent deaths. I guess the analogy here is, if you accidentally hit someone with your car, you can't "clean up" after yourself by murdering their family so no one will have to mourn your first victim's death.

      Your claim that "there is no such thing as anti-war" doesn't make much sense. I'd agree that pacifism is a difficult position for people to hold, but certainly it's not impossible. Recognizing that human beings are capable of violence doesn't mean we have to be in favor of it. They're capable of rape, too, but I find no difficulty in being completely anti-rape. I'm not selective about it: all rape is bad. It's even bad to rape rapists!

  2. And speaking of leftist violence, there was plenty of it, far worse and far more frequent than anything the Tea Party people have allegedly done.

    1. And speaking of leftist violence, there was plenty of it, far worse and far more frequent than anything the Tea Party people have allegedly done.

      Citation needed, but I agree with the overall point that Tea Party violence and radicalism is overstated. As I understand the TPers, it's mostly a libertarian movement, though of course this is controversial and disputed even among TPers themselves.

  3. I wrote a comment but apparently it was swallowed.

    Does that 151,000 number discount the number of people who would have died under sanctions, or suffered horrible deaths at the hands of the Hussein regime?

    And what are we counting in those numbers? Are we including people killed as a result of Iranian interference? I was in Najaf when a suicide bomber, trained in Iran, killed dozens of police recruits who were standing in line for a job with the police force.

    Sure you could say that if the US had not invaded, it wouldn't have happened. If the Baath party had not been purged there wouldn't have been a police shortage, if the government of Iraq had not been perceived as weak by Tehran perhaps they would have thought twice about interfering. But then again, if the US had never entered WWI and rejuvenated the effort the Ottoman empire probably would be standing and we would not be having this conversation.

    Point is, how far removed from some original cause must we go before an act or event is no longer fully attributed to that cause? While the US invasion is still fairly proximal to these 151,000 deaths, it certainly isn't immediate to all of them.

    If we blame every car bombing and mortar attack on the US invasion, then we can credibly blame the democrats for every act of vandalism some tea party member commits against a DNC party building in reaction to the health care bill.

    But here I am quibbling over numbers. I believe we had a moral responsibility to rid Iraq of that family. We did give him a chance to go into exile. I believe Libya even offered to let him stay there, but he refused to go.

    When I said that there is no such thing as pacifism or antiwar, I meant that no group of humans will ever last long if their creed is to never fight, never wage war or ever act in their own self-defense. It is a trait that will always get selected out of existence. It is better to claim to be opposed to particular wars because it is much more defensible, though in some ways more difficult because you need to formulate a reason to be opposed to particular wars.

    1. Is there a reason you're using this post to re-litigate arguments from 2002? I'm glad to have readers, but it doesn't look like your reading me very well. This isn't a question about whether the war was legitimate, it's a question about whether a domestic opposition of citizens could have successfully prevented it.

      Needed or not, if citizens who oppose something can't succeed against a small cadre of elites once those elites have had a single electoral success, then our system doesn't look very democratic. We're not engaging in self-rule.

      If elites can deceive their constituents into supporting a war and take advantage of misplaced fears and demands for retribution to achieve goals irrelevant to those fears and demands, then we're also not in a particularly 'smart' epistemic situation. That's a system that will misfire quite often because public deliberation is overcome deceptive rhetoric.

      So okay, if you want to relitigate the decision, consider this. Maybe your arguments are good ones. Maybe we really did owe Iraq a bloody invasion after fucking up their country by supporting a dictator and paying him to go to war with his neighbors. (Though if that's so, I think we owed them a better invasion then the one we gave them….)

      But those aren't the reasons that we used to justify the war at the time. So even if (as you apparently believe) we did the right thing, we certainly didn't do it for the right reasons. In that case, doing the right thing would be just a fortuitous accident.

  4. "Needed or not, if citizens who oppose something can’t succeed against a small cadre of elites once those elites have had a single electoral success, then our system doesn’t look very democratic. We’re not engaging in self-rule."

    Excellent point. I was struck by that realization last Sunday.

    "I think we owed them a better invasion then the one we gave them"

    Hem. No argument there.

  5. Well, we're on different sides of the two issues discussed, obviously, but perhaps you'll agree with me that, a. there was nothing that the opposition could have done to prevent the the war or the health care bill, and b. that this powerlessness has to be either a virtue (if you think populists are usually wrong and dangerous) or a problem (if you think elites are usually protecting their self-interest) but that in either case it's the same problem or the same virtue for both policy issues, i.e. for both the war and the health care bill.

    Of course, since I supported the health care bill and since the process was public and deliberative and looong, I believe that the opposition's powerlessness is better evidence of their being-wrong than the opposition to war in Iraq. I also note that some of the opposition supported more market-oriented reforms and some felt that the current plan was too small and that we ought to have instituted some kind of single-payer or single-provider system. So here the epistemic situation looks a little different than the Iraq War where there are really only two policy choices, and the current bill looks like a more acceptable compromise than: "Let's agree to disagree but I'm still going to invade."

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